Another previously upnublished short story, this one in more of an action-adventure vein. Maybe. Enjoy.
No Attention At All
An intense short story by Harvey Stanbrough
I was crouched next to an empty doorway peering past the weathered grey 2×4 frame. I’d just wiped a trickle of sweat off my left forehead and cheek when a heavy footstep dropped somewhere behind me. Surprised, I rocked back slightly, my left shoulder grating against the plaster wall, and jerked my head around.
Private Joey Bloom. Grinning. He raised his right hand. “Hey, Gunny, how many—”
A bullet whined off the door frame. A split instant later a shower of wood splinters and plaster peppered the front of Bloom’s tan t-shirt. It flashed red before he crumpled.
Incredible, how fast a guy can go. Here one split second, gone the next. Poor, stupid Joey. And his last words were, “Hey, Gunny, how many—”
From my position behind the wall, I focused on his boots, his hands, his head.
He wasn’t moving. Not so much as a finger twitch.
Damn it. How many times had I told him to mind his cover? If he’d come along the opposite wall and talked to me across the open doorway, I’d have heard the rest of the question.
How many what, Private Bloom?
How many ammo cans did I want you to bring up?
That was probably it.
Only a few seconds ago he was crouched next to me in the 100-degree plus heat, just back of my left shoulder. Kid wanted to be a machine gunner, and the best way to learn is to break in as an a-gunner. The guy who feeds the belt into the gun.
So as our company moved up from south of here, when I spotted this inside corner through the blown-out back wall, I quickly looked it over, vaguely wondering why there were no enemy there. They had to know we were moving north. The house would be a perfect place for an observation post.
But the back of the house, the part facing us, was blown open. They couldn’t put a post here without us seeing it. So that settled that. I glanced back and yelled, “Bloom! Get up here!”
He ran up all grins, his rifle dangling from its strap over his left shoulder, but without his flak jacket or helmet. “Yeah, Gunny?”
The machine gun dangling by its handle from my left hand, I looked him up and down. I figured we’d have a professional chat about his lack of a protective vest and helmet later, but for now there was no time. I handed him the ammo can I was carrying, gestured and said, “C’mon.” Then I turned away and pulled my pistol out of its holster.
He followed me from one pile of rubble to the next until we finally moved through what was left of the house.
I trained my pistol on the opening where the front door had been as we moved along the left wall, most of which was still standing. I halfway expected an enemy combatant to appear in that doorway, but none did.
That’s when I spotted a couple of our guys, according to the uniforms. Damn it. Probably Lance Corporal Jones and Private Smith. We’d noticed them missing earlier and assumed they’d been snatched in the night. But there had been no screams. Probably they’d moved up on their own earlier, wanting to be heroes. They lay across the entrance of the door atop a thin pile of rubble.
When Bloom and I reached the front of the house, I carefully leaned the gun butt-down in the corner, then holstered my pistol. Then I crouched behind the short piece of wall next to the door frame and looked at the men lying in the doorway.
The one on the bottom was facing me. That was definitely Jones, and he wasn’t head-shot. I couldn’t see the other one’s face, but whoever it was had a gaping exit wound on the back of his head.
But it had to be Smith, just as I’d suspected. He and Jones were always together. Probably victims of a sniper, which explained why the enemy didn’t have an observation post here.
Probably Jones had gotten overzealous, framed himself in the doorway, and the sniper popped him. Probably shot him in the body, hoping his cries would entice someone else to try to help him. And that would be Smith. When Jones went down, Smith probably jumped out to help him and the sniper dropped him too.
Well, things are what they are, but I could’ve done without the stench of decaying flesh. Smith and Jones were beyond our help, and we still had a job to do.
I glanced back at Bloom.
He was staring wide-eyed at the bodies. Private Bloom joined us only a week ago.
“Hey,” I said, and snapped my fingers in front of his face. “You have to focus now, okay?”
He only nodded, then tore his gaze away from the bodies and said, “Sure, Gunny. Sure thing.” Then he relaxed a little, or seemed to. He lowered his rifle to the floor, then crouched behind me on the left, his left shoulder against the long side wall.
From my position, I would risk a look through the doorway to check out the situation. If it was as the lieutenant said, this would be the perfect place for the gun. Well, except that there was no path of egress, but then, we didn’t expect to need one. Not if Bloom and I could bring the gun into play.
As I leaned slightly forward to peek around the wall, I held my right arm up behind me to indicate he should stay there. I’d have still kept him back even if he was wearing his flak jacket and helmet.
I looked over the scene through the doorway, verifying the intel the lieutenant gave me. And his intel was right, at least for the position. The enemy were in another building, a large building, maybe a hundred feet away. But it looked to me like there were a lot more bad guys over there than he’d expected.
I glanced over my left shoulder at Bloom, told him plain as day, “Listen. Run back and grab a couple more cans and bring them up, all right?” I’d only brought one can with me based on the lieutenant’s intel. When I saw the larger numbers, we had two choices: return to the unit or get more bullets. But I hated the thought of leaving such a prime location, and I had an idea. Where we were located, we could cause all kinds of hate and discontent.
Bloom didn’t say anything but only nodded. As he rose and turned around, there was the slight crunching of his boots on the broken plaster on the floor.
I watched him go for a moment. He was staying close to the wall, meaning out of sight of the enemy. Then I turned away and there were only his footfalls fading into the distance.
I leaned forward again for another check of the position across the broad street.
It looked like an old hotel over there. Six stories high, bombed out at least once, but with guys visible through the dust and the empty windows on the ground floor. A lot of guys, both up close and farther back. Like they were massing on the ground floor. Their only target could be the company behind me. Which would mean their first objective had to be the building in which I was currently crouching. The former houses to either side of mine were gone, piles of rubble. Perfect.
There was also one guy set behind a window up higher. Third floor. Probably that was the sniper nest. I couldn’t see him, but a sheet had been torn and hung at the sides of the window to form a blind.
I pulled back from the corner and glanced at Private Bloom’s body again. For a moment, I regretted my hurry to get us both up here. If I’d told Bloom earlier to “Grab a couple of cans and come with me” it would be okay now. He’d still be here. We’d be settled in behind the gun in another half-minute or so, waiting to lay down a field of fire a moth couldn’t get through.
But I hadn’t told him to grab a couple of cans then, so I had to tell him later, after we’d settled in. Because one can might do it, but it might not too. The thing about force is that it should always be overwhelming. If I could get two more cans, we’d have plenty to finish the job. Then our guys could move into the old hotel. We’d have better cover there and a better vantage point from which to observe enemy positions and continue the advance. That’s how it’s done.
Right here, right now, if he’d brought those two cans up, with those cans and Joey to feed the gun for me, he and I could go flat this side of the mound of rubble in the doorway. Well, and the two bodies on top of it.
But that wasn’t what it was. Bloom was dead behind me and I had only the one can of ammo.
I refocused on the doorway again.
If I placed the bipod on the ground just this side of the pile, the barrel would clear Smith’s lower back by about an inch. On the left, his right elbow was cocked up above his back, and on the right, his butt and what I assume is his billfold protruded just enough to limit the gun on that side. And his lower back would limit the drop. The bullets would hit waist-to-chest high on the enemy, most of whom were directly ahead of us.
So the field of fire would be perfect. Perfect height, perfect width. I’d never seen a better setup. It’s as if Jones and Smith had been born 23 and 19 years ago just so they could die this morning and land in the perfect position to contribute in a positive way as makeshift sandbags.
Then Joey Bloom, maybe a whole five seconds after he left, decided to turn back and ask me a stupid question. One that just didn’t matter. How do I know?
Because if he was listening in the first place, he knew I wanted two cans, and he knew two cans of what. And if he turned back to ask anything else, that was even more stupid. Because any other question could have waited until he brought up those two cans. He could’ve asked anything he wanted while we were setting up the gun and settling in behind it.
I looked at him again. Jesus. All we had to do was attach the bipod, then get low and inch ourselves and the gun into position behind Smith and Jones and the rubble holding them a few inches off the ground. That’s all the hell we had to do.
Then it would be easy. A simple matter of Bloom feeding the gun so it wouldn’t jam. He would be out of harm’s way. I didn’t need a spotter, so he wouldn’t even have to show himself. He wouldn’t have to look, though he’d probably try and I’d probably have to tell him to get down again. Focus on his job. He could look later.
He only had to lie there on his back with the open can on his right, me behind the gun on his left, and let the belted ammo flow over his hands as the gun pulled it in and spit it out. At the worst he’d have gotten maybe dust on the back of his stupid t-shirt. Maybe a bruise here and there from plaster fragments pressing into his back because he wasn’t wearing his stupid flak jacket, but probably not even that. And definitely not a blast full in the chest.
That’s how it should have gone. But that isn’t what happened.
For whatever reason, Bloom had to stop, framed perfectly for the sniper through the opening of the doorway, and ask me a stupid question. And he paid.
And unless someone in the company saw him go down, I’ll have to pay too. If anyone did see, I should be getting a new a-gunner soon. If I hear boots coming up behind me, I’ll just have to trust that’s what it is. I only hope whoever it is brings a couple of ammo cans with him.
I got ready for another look across the street. One final glimpse.
I know where the sniper is already, and I can’t do anything about him. The company will have to handle him as they advance after I open up with the gun. I could maybe pick up Bloom’s rifle and fire a short burst or two through the window, but doing that would give up my position to the bad guys on the ground. Which would probably cause them to change their plan.
No, I could take out a lot more of them if they remain ignorant to my current position.
To slightly change my perspective, and in case the sniper was aiming where he’d seen my face before, I stood up. Then I peered around the corner again. But this time I looked only at the ground floor.
No real change. They were still there, visible through the windows, but they seemed to be moving right to left. So toward the double doors on the front of the building.
The right door was already gaping open. So that was my key. Once I got into position with the gun and got it set against my right shoulder, I’d watch the left door. When it moved I’d know I was about to have targets. Probably a lot of them all at once.
That would give me a built-in delay of a second or two, during which I’d reposition myself behind the gun to look through the sights. Good technique is never wasted. Which would in turn enable more of them to pour through the door and into the street. Into the field of fire. Then I’d wait another second or two before I squeezed the trigger. I’d sweep left to right or right to left, depending on where the preponderance of them were.
Then it would be lawn mower time in whatever the hell town this was.
I pulled back from the door frame without drawing fire and glanced over my right shoulder into the distance.
Between the ever-present dust and the heat mirages, I couldn’t see anyone in the company. Okay, so they probably couldn’t see me either. So probably I should go ahead and set up the gun. By myself.
I knelt, popped open the ammo can, and grabbed the end of the belt. As is my habit, I broke the first link and slipped the round into my right front trouser pocket. Luck.
I glanced back at Bloom again, then unsnapped and unzipped my flak jacket and stood it next to the side wall, about where Bloom had knelt when we first came in here. Damn thing would keep me too far off the ground anyway. And any of their bullets should either impact Smith or Jones or the rubble beneath them. The ones that didn’t should pass overhead without effect, except to make me snuggle closer to the ground.
I looked at Smith and Jones again, and again the stench of dead flesh wafted up to me. They were living, breathing men only a few hours ago. Fathers, husbands, sons, brothers. Now they were human sandbags.
God I hate this shit.
Focus. I looked at the ground to my right, identified where I wanted to set the ammo can, then extended my right boot into the opening past the door frame and dragged it back and forth to level the spot a little. I only have two hands. Since I would have to feed the belt myself, it wouldn’t do to have the can turn over while I was firing.
Once I got the can positioned and the first few rounds dangled over the far side, I turned back to the gun.
The bipod was already affixed, so I extended the legs, locked them into position, and took a deep breath. Then I backed up a bit, hugged the gun to my chest, and rolled to the right.
The right bipod leg folded up as I rolled, and I stopped a little farther to the right than I wanted, but nobody from the other side fired.
Too bad for them. That was about the best look I planned to give the sniper. And from his position on the third floor, chances were even he could see only my butt cheeks, maybe, and the heels of my boots.
But maybe he wasn’t watching. What if he was moving to a higher floor? What if he’d have a better vantage point and could see more of me?
But if he could access a higher floor, he’d probably already be there.
I quickly adjusted my position with my elbows and knees, re-extended the right bipod leg, and got both legs set where I wanted them just behind the rubble in the doorway.
Only the right leg was balanced on a wobbly rock.
I laid the gun over to the left a little, reached up with my right hand and swept the rock away. Then I settled the gun again.
I tried to jiggle it, but it was solid.
When I start firing, it will self-adjust a little, but I’ll just have to deal with that. Nature of the beast. Or the pig. Owing to its bulk and the sound of its report, which some think sounds like a barnyard hog, detractors call this little beauty The Pig. But not me. I love it. Nobody I’d rather dance with in a hot firefight.
I cocked the bolt to the rear, fed the first round into the feed tray, closed the cover and switched the safety to Fire. Then I settled in behind the gun and peered at the left side of those double doors.
I’d been in position for all of three or four seconds when my left shoulder started aching from holding the belt up. Then the door handle jiggled and the door started to move. The ache disappeared.
For some reason—and against all reason—I thought they might all file calmly out onto the street, fall into formation, and receive a motivational speech from whoever was leading them. Of course that would never happen. For one thing, they knew there were enemy combatants nearby somewhere. Still, it’s what I expected.
So after the door handle jiggled and the door began to open, I was surprised when it burst open. I was surprised when what looked like a thousand men suddenly poured out over the stoop all at once. Three across, five across, seven across, all carrying rifles at the port, all yelling some motivational crap I couldn’t understand. Those in the back surged forward, flooding through openings in front of them, flowing around the sides, all yelling, all running, not a coward among them.
I readjusted my cheek weld on the stock, tightened my hold on the pistol grip, tensed my shoulder against the recoil and squeezed the trigger.
The mass was in the middle, but I cut down the right side first. Those few falling enraged me. What leader would be stupid enough to have them charge a supposedly empty position, and yelling, no less? But it also empowered me.
I let the gun chatter—two short bursts. Three—until there was nobody left on their left flank. I calmly moved the barrel to my left, slowed, fired, and let it chew at the right side of their full middle. More men fell, those in back stumbling over those in the front. The smart ones stayed down. The others tried to rise, but rose into a solid sheet of bullets.
I moved the barrel farther to the left, all the way to Smith’s right elbow, and chewed away the stragglers on the left end—their right end. But they were the farthest away. Was I showing off? With the left end clean and square, I moved the barrel back to the right again. The gun chattered on, eating at the left side of the full middle. By now the ones still running were halfway across the street.
By the time I moved the barrel farther right, repositioned my cheek weld, squeezed the pistol grip again and then the trigger, the center mass—maybe twenty men across and maybe twice that many deep—was three quarters of the way across the street.
A few had realized what was going on. They knelt, brought their rifles to their shoulders.
The door frame was shattered again, again. Smith’s body jerked, jerked again. Angry bees passed overhead, some splatting against the wall behind me to the right.
I turned the gun on the kneeling riflemen, and let the pig speak. I watched the shooters jump and fall, jump and fall, moved the barrel back to that center mass and squeezed the trigger harder as if that would make the gun cycle faster.
Men screamed and collapsed in the face of bullets ripping into their abdomens and upper legs and lower chests. Men behind them stumbled and fell. Others stumbled but kept coming. A solitary shot, sounding sharp in all the yelling, slapped down toward me, hit Smith. The body jerked from the impact.
And the leading few of the middle were crossing the curb.
Another solitary shot, and the round hit behind me, between my legs. I swear I felt the earth move.
That was enough.
I jerked the gun straight back, rose to my knees, and rolled the gun slightly left so the ammo belt wouldn’t bind. I fired into the mass. Kept firing. Kept firing. I elevated the gun, filled the offending third-floor window and the wall to either side with rounds, then back down to the waiting host. Still firing, still firing, the barrel beginning to glow red.
And something slapped me hard in the forehead.
For an instant, my neck hurt like hell.
Behind me, shots sounded along with the crunch of a hundred boots on gravel, rocks, plaster, the floor. A hundred boots, maybe a thousand, the sound blending into the thunder of a stampede.
Wild mustangs in a herd in Nevada. I’d seen that one time, with dark clouds in the background. Storm clouds, as if the mustangs were running ahead of the storm.
Someone behind me yelled, “Get down!” and I got down. Or I was down. Something. I was all the way down, flat on my belly, my head turned to one side as if I’d been shot. Like Smith or Jones or Bloom.
Angry bees zipped over my head, buzzing all around, a few bullets slapping the short walls in front of me to the left and right.
Sloppy shooters. Sloppy shooters.
And the remaining men in the street were running. I heard them, still yelling but different, their voices receding. Mustangs running ahead of the storm.
And not back to the hotel. The hotel is mine. I bought it. It’s mine.
They were probably running left and right up the street, maybe, angling for cross-streets, angling to get away, angling to live. And boots stampeded past me, all around me, out the door and probably on either side of the house, men fanning left and right, yelling, firing.
And there was a presence. Quiet. A quiet presence.
My face still against the floor, I said, “Can I get up?”
Softly. “No. Not anymore.”
So I got to my hands and knees, rocked back and looked to my right.
The sergeant major was lighting a cigarette, but looking down where I lay a moment ago.
I said, “We got it, didn’t we? We got it.”
He took a drag, nodded, exhaled a thin stream of blue smoke, still looking down. “Jesus, Guns. At least you went in style.”
Went? Went where? What was he talking about? Was he talking about the hotel? I turned my head, looked at the hotel, looked up to the third floor, gestured with my chin. “There’s a sniper up there. He hit Bloom.” I gestured toward the sandbags. “And probably Smith and—”
“Doesn’t matter though.” He turned his head, gestured toward the third-floor window. “You even knocked a sniper out of that damn window over there. Good job, Guns.” He laughed quietly and shook his head. “And this close to the end.”
I frowned. I looked right at him, and I frowned. “Me? I fired at the window?”
He nodded again, then shook his head. He exhaled another thin blue stream of smoke, then dropped the cigarette on the floor and crushed it under his boot. He looked behind him. “Hey Jameson, come pick up this gun. We’re headed out.”
I said, “Right. To the hotel, right?”
But he paid me no attention. No attention at all.
Jameson came running up. “Yes, sergeant major. Too bad about Gunny Brewer.”